I have always had a healthy admiration for comedians.
For me they have always been the bearer of uncomfortable truths and the representors of the silent majority (or silent masses). Whether it is Ricky Gervais shamelessly applying public head shots to actor elites on the Golden Globes, or The Monty Python crew explaining ‘what have the romans ever done for us?’ I have always been intrigued as to their role in society and teams.
When I was a new Lieutenant, I had a soldier in my platoon who we will call ‘Steve’. He was an older soldier and an experienced troublemaker. He had a natural charismatic aura and had come from a tough background. Other soldiers gravitated to his energy. Arguably his most redeeming feature was his ‘rat cunning’ and his ability to read the room, and the people within it.
We used to make a distinction between ‘three types’ of soldier:
The ‘Barracks Soldier.’ Very rarely in trouble with the law, thus rarely requiring disciplining or corrective actions. A professional in the barracks in the environment. Often highly educated and industrious with a good response to order and convention. Generally very career focused particularly with regards to promotions and courses.
The ‘Field Soldiers.’ Often in trouble in the barracks environment (legal, relationships, investments, career, etc), but a natural fighter in the field environment. They often had very little career ambition but just loved the thrill of being at the pointy end of their profession. They often made up for their barracks transgressions by demonstrating their skill on the battlefield.
The ‘Unicorn’. The soldier that was excellent in and out of the field.
Steve was a field soldier of the highest order. The soldiers respected and looked up to him, so much so that he socially asserted himself as their representative. A tricky position to hold in an organisation which is intensely hierarchical, and order driven.
The mechanism by which he achieved this effect: Comedy.
He had an innate ability to crack a joke and break the ice. But not just any meaningless and useless joke. No, it was far more surgical than that. His jokes were of the right balance to be able to call out the elephant in the room. The one no-one else wanted to, or could, address.
As a leader it was incredibly valuable.
1. The fact that the important message was delivered as a joke meant it was done with good intent (we will talk about offence being taken, not given later).
2. The frequency of his jokes meant that no-one was safe, and everyone could expect to be ridiculed, even himself (by himself) at some point, thus removing the officialities associated with the hierarchy.
3. The content of his jokes was always etched in some level of subjective truth. He was most often reporting the obvious or blinding inconsistencies in our messaging or logic, the ones that everyone was thinking, but no-one was speaking about. This allowed us to answer these concerns publicly and address the concerns of the masses without the need for complaints.
One time however, during a period of weakness I lashed out at Steve who was cracking jokes at a time when I was severely sleep deprived and carrying a burden of responsibility which I didn’t feel comfortable explaining to my men at the time. The result of this lapse in judgement was a temporary break in rapport with Steve, who abruptly retreated into his metaphorical shell.
For a period, I was blind to the needs and feelings of my men. The section commanders did a good job in allaying their concerns and ideas, but even they were separated to some extent due to their hierarchical positions.
We had lost our court jester…
Steve was wise enough to know it too (otherwise he wouldn’t have been a very good reader of rooms). Slowly but surely, he regained his confidence and began demonstrating the much-needed behaviours which would characterise our Platoon team dynamic.
Over time as his confidence grew, he became a reliable source of information about what was happening to the other teams within our organisation. The other team jesters would speak to each other and ground truth information we could not, or would not, receive via other means.
The Essential Role
The term ‘Jester’ is drawn from Anglo-Norman (Old French) Gestour or Jestour, meaning storyteller or Minstrel. Older terms for the same role included Fol, Disour, Buffoon, and Bourder.
The role provided an important function and has been present the world over for ages past.
In Ancient Rome, Balatrones were professional performers for the rich. Often covering political topics, relevant at the time. This was particularly true during periods of carnival.
“The Court Jester had the right to say the most outrageous things to the king. Everything was permitted during carnival, even the songs that the Roman Legionnaires would sing, calling Julies Caesar ‘Queen’, alluding, in a very transparent way, to his real, or presumed, homosexual escapades.’
The Aztecs and Chinese employed cultural equivalents to the jester, to the same effect.
In France in 1340, when the French fleet was destroyed at the battle of Sluvs by the English, Phillip VI’s jester told him the English sailors ‘don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.’ In doing so, he was the first to break the bad news to the King, when no-one else would dare (Beatrice, O, 2001)
In Poland, a politically focussed jester by the name of Stanczyk would later become a historical symbol for the Polish people (Pelc, J, 1989).
In an example which pushes the boundaries, a Jester by the name of Ferrial (AKA Triboulet) went too far by insulting the Queen. The King responded decisively, sentencing him to death. Due to Ferrial’s long service with the King, he was provided with the opportunity to choose his mechanism of death. His response “Good sire, by Saint Goody Two Shoes and Saint Fatty, patrons of insanity, I ask to die from old age.” So brazen was his response, the King reconsidered his order, and banished him instead (Historia, 2008).
The Battle For ‘Common Sense’ and The Search For ‘Truth’
“Satire must accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms they understood the need for the Court Jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter.”
– Joe Randozzo –
Shakespeare identified the important need for jesters. He often used them as a means of incentivising attendance at his plays of different classes within society. The jester was used a mechanism of commonality and a means of building rapport within the audience, regardless of their status.
In the ‘Twelfth Night’, Feste the jester is described as “wise enough to play the fool” such was the high regard for which the position was held.
In ‘King Lear,’ the Jester is used as a means of communicating the perceptions of the masses, adopting a consultative or advisory role for the Monarch.
In essence, the Jester is, and has always been, the last line of defence in the battle for common sense. They have forever been the pressure tester of ideas, and the illuminator of idiocy. They are the identifier of hypocrisies and inconsistencies. They are the social pattern finders, with the courage to communicate their observations. They are by their very nature incredibly intelligent and observant.
But what has caught my eye in recent years is a concerning shift in language and expectations. There has been an ever-increasing tendency to compel speech and censor language to escape awkwardness and avoid offence. It seems to have accompanied a social redirection to ever improve our collective safety, without concerning ourselves for the accompanying responsibility to increase one’s own strength.
In a recent example, SOAS University in London attempted to pre-censor Konstantin Kisin (comedian) as a prerequisite to his comedic performance. The list of banned topics included: “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-religion or anti-atheism.” A tough gig for any comic. Needless to say, Konstantin didn’t take the job.
During my time in the Infantry, it was the class clowns that really bonded the teams. Their jokes new few limits, and no-one was exempt. An Officer that could demonstrate they could take a joke on the chin and walk it off, demonstrated a strength of character which would be highly valuable in other more challenging environments. If they couldn’t take a joke, how would they respond with the pressures associated with a real enemy who seeks to kill them? It might seem a bridge too far to connect taking a joke and being shot at, but they are more similar than they are different.
The teams with the most developed sense of humour were the ones that survived the greatest hardships, plain and simple. The leaders who ignored the value of humour within their teams, or were too uptight to take a joke, were the ones that experienced fractured teams with poor morale.
In the movie Deadpool, Wade Winston finds strength through his torture by relentlessly cracking jokes to assert his only freedom on his captors. Later in the movie his comedic rants only escalate further, demonstrating a powerful strength of character. It is as if his ability to crack jokes is his strongest superpower of all as it links with his resilience. Across the two films Deadpool makes endless jokes about his emerging team members, and they return the favour. The exchanges are shrugged off by each participant as they pressure test each other relentlessly. Slowly but surely their teams grows cohesively, glued together through comedy and the observational humour of their central jester.
When I transitioned out of the Military there was an adjustment period. The most significant adjustment I experienced was the censoring of speech. I had never experienced censorship of this level and I had worked in Top Secret environments for many years! It was as if there was an unspoken rule, governed by an unseen presence, dictating that one could not (or should not) say anything that could remotely offend someone else. This for me seemed like madness at first. I attempted to rationalise the problem in the first instance, ‘offence is subjective, how could someone possibly govern that?’ Or ‘don’t they realise that a team that cannot joke about itself will never get through tough times?’
Gabrielle Union’s quote echoed in my mind at the time, “drama can feel like therapy whereas comedy feels like there’s been a pressure and a weight lifted off of you.”
Nonetheless the censorship was there, and it was real. I trod on some toes initially, I was then ‘corrected,’ until I too started to adjust my speech. In most cases I didn’t even know I was doing it. To some extent, I drank the Kool Aid. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I was avoiding problems by not addressing them. My avoidance was prompting regret due to my lack of personal courage and convictions. After some time, the regret morphed into resentment towards individuals themselves, and also towards myself. This continued until one day I was answering someone’s question about Leadership as part of a workshop.
Their question: ‘What do you think is the most important function of a leader?”
My answer: ‘Good leaders are those that can articulate and contextualise the truth’.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew then and there that I had let myself down. I had shied away from having courageous conversations and I was resenting people unnecessarily because of it…
“Those who make conversations impossible, make escalation inevitable.”
Offence Taken, Not Given
I hope that most people would agree that comedy is important. The distinction lies in what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable, and the challenge emerges when we acknowledge the nature of subjectivity; what someone finds offensive will be perfectly acceptable to another. The complexity that exacerbates this further, is that we are seemingly creating a culture that avoids conflict at all expense, even if it is healthy and delivered with pure intent.
In expanding this topic I think there are some important distinctions that need to be made:
Bullying vs Banter. Banter is not Bullying. Banter is ‘the exchange of remarks in a good-humoured teasing way.’ Bullying is ‘seeking to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable.)’ The difference lies in people’s intent. Most would remember the early days of romantic dating when banter really meant flirting…
Problem vs Person. A good jester can delineate between the problem and the person (the individual). They are often different things. Subtle changes in language can change the trajectory of a joke into an attack. Another expansion might include the distinction between a ‘joke’ and a ‘jab.’ Experienced comics traverse this razors edge with expert skill. The most proficient jester is one that can talk about the elephant in the room without leading the conversation to the conclusion that it was someone’s fault for letting it in.
‘Time and Place’ vs ‘In Your Face.’ There is a time for jokes and banter and there is a time for seriousness and decorum. Get the balance wrong and a jester can find themselves in hot lava. Some people are terrible readers of the room and extend way too far.
But what of offence? Are we so fragile that differing opinions can damage us? I would hope not. I would like to think that people have become stronger over time, enlightened with more information and the lessons from our forbearers. But alas, I do not think this is true.
I think over time we have become increasingly secular and tribal, forever terrified about what people might think of us. Our fear has now turned towards those ‘jesters’ that are brave enough to communicate what they see. To explain their truth whilst revelling in the awkwardness of it all.
“He who takes offense when no offense is intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense is intended is a greater fool.”
In true Jester fashion Ricky Gervais was coined saying “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right.” He was of course indirectly speaking about the truth, and the role the jester plays in communicating it.
In full transparency my personal concern is towards the censorship of speech. I would hate to think that language itself was censored or as a minimum distorted under a guise of ‘protection’ and ‘tolerance.’ The idea terrifies me and George Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind, “In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
So moving forward be very mindful about attacking and silencing the jester, particularly if they might be telling us something we need to hear.
If you have a jester in your team or organisation, be glad. Because whilst they are talking, you might be kept aware enough to not drink your own Kool Aid. Who knows you might learn something and become stronger for it.
If you see the jester being targeted and removed, start asking yourself who will provide the ‘common sense’ perspective?
If you look around and see no jester, be worried. They have either left and moved to greener pastures, or their satirical spirit has been crushed. Neither are good options for the longevity of healthy, resilient and capable teams. A workplace without humour is a sad and unsustainable place.
These are my thoughts, what are yours?
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